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A typo too far…?

January 26, 2011

How much do online news readers actually care about typos? I’ve worked in online news for a few years now, and while I know some people get really upset when a word is misspelled, I’m not convinced most people really care all that much.

Let’s dodge the wider question of the insanity of English spelling (weigh, day, lei, they, eh?), and why English words ended up being spelled the way they are today. I know it doesn’t make sense. I know any language that can hold a competition to spell words has issues. Typos are still a problem regardless.

Print is different from the web on this though. Readers’ standards are lower online, I suspect. That’s because of a few things:

1) Speed of production means there are just more typos – Things get put online faster than in the newspaper, so the production chain is much shorter. A news article in the paper will get usually read by three or four people (reporter, news editor, subs, etc). Online it’s often just two (reporter and web editor), and both of them are in a hurry. So more online stories have typos, readers see more typos online than in a newspaper, so they expect more and don’t mind so much.

2) News sites would rather get a story up quickly than cleanly – Speed matters online. You need to break news before the competition. If you break news with a few typos in it, that’s better than waiting 5 minutes and having a nice clean story that wins second place.

3) It’s free (usually) – Most news online is free, and despite how you may feel about it, it’s probably going to stay that way for the next few years at least. Being free lowers your expectations. People expect more typos in free media products, just like a free paper is held to lower standards than one you paid for.

After all, copy editing cost money, and if you’re not willing to stump up for a premium service, do you really have a the right to complain about a free service? (This is actually a witty comeback when people complain about most things on free news websites. Just ask them how much they’d be willing to pay to get a version without their particular pet peeve.)

4) Copy editing is expensive – The economics of online news are brutal. Paying for a whole extra person to read over the articles you’re publishing just isn’t cost-effective when the value of the ads on the page is so much less than print (an online reader is worth between 5-10% of a print subscriber for most publications).

5) The rest of the internet – Blogs, forums, and other websites have typos too, because a lot of them are done by amateurs, and even the professional ones aren’t proofread carefully. Typos are everywhere online. So readers on a news website tend to less picky about them.

6) Fixability – If a typo gets into the paper, it can make headlines around the world. It’s there to embarrass you forever. A website, not such much. You can fix a typo in a few seconds on most publishing platforms. Most times hardly anyone will notice (though sometimes they take an unfortunate screenshot…)

7) People don’t read as closely online as print. They tend to skim articles, so typos don’t stand out as much.

8) Most people can’t spell anyway, and never done learned them no good grammer. It’s nothing to be embarass embarrased embarrassed about.

9) Money – It all comes down to money in the end, but the bald truth is you don’t make any more money off a typo-free article than one with a few typos in it. If enough people boycotted a news site because of typos, it would be worth paying extra to clean them up, but most people just don’t seem to care.

They do care about getting good news, quickly, and surrounded by interesting multimedia or relevant articles. Provide that, and most people don’t mind about little things like occassional typos.

Web editors hate typos as much as readers do. They tend to be a finicky bunch, and they know typos make the site look sloppy and less professional. They’d love to have the time and money to make each article perfect, but that just isn’t going to happen.

Expect standards to keep slipping too, and typos to become more common and accepted. Also expect sub editors to be excluded/removed from the online article food chain. Why pay someone to fix typos when most of your readers don’t seem all that bothered? Why pay for a staff member to do what your readers are happy to do themselves? That kind of crowdsourcing software is just around the corner.

Do you care about typos on your news websites? How many is enough to make you think about switching to the competition?  We don’t get confused when hearing someone use there/their/they’re, so why do we expect readers to get confused reading about it?

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